If I had to go back to being a postdoc, knowing what I know now as a PI, would I do anything differently ? Would it change my work, my attitude towards my PI, my understanding of all the crap that annoyed me while I was a postdoc?
I have obviously asked myself this very question many times, over the past (sigh) fifteen years, and the answer I always come up with is the same: Not really. The way I see it, based on my experience, by the time one makes it to postdoc, chips have pretty much fallen into place, and the career prospects of a young scientist have been either considerably enhanced, or dramatically narrowed down.
The department or laboratory where one ends up, the person with whom one works, and even the research projects that one will carry out, are largely determined by one’s choice of graduate school and doctoral supervisor (which one of the two is more important is a matter of opinions).
Sure, I suppose I could have chosen slightly different projects, I could have tried to take charge of my scientific activity earlier on, as opposed to depending on my PI’s input as heavily as I did during my first postdoctoral year. Maybe I could have tried to involve a second senior person in my research, in order to be able to list him/her as a reference later on. I could have done “a little more of that” and “a little less of this” but… we are not talking anything substantial — I doubt if any of that would have mattered much in the end.
If I look at the career paths of my fellow postdocs at the time (most, practically all of us are now professors), my impression is that we have all enjoyed similar professional opportunities, and we could not have really done a whole lot more than we did.
That is the thing that I find most unsettling about the academic profession in North America — the choice of graduate school, the one choice that one makes early on, when one still knows little or nothing about what one wants to do, much less about how things work in the academic world, ends up having a disproportionate impact on one’s career. How is it possible ? Why is it that the sticker that one acquires in graduate school has such a long-lasting effect ? I think it happens through a combination of factors.
Intellectual laziness, sheepishness, blind adherence on the part of the community to “conventional wisdom”, the power of a network of personal connections established while in graduate school, all of that contributes to setting a freshly minted PhD on a fairly well-defined track — pretty much down to employment and funding opportunities.
Is it conceivable that, while the majority of research takes place in the laboratories of second and even third tier universities, the vast majority of funding, jobs, prizes, speaking invitations at prestigious conferences should go to scientists operating at the same few (as in, less than ten) universities ?
It should not be that way. I genuinely believe that graduate courses taught at Harvard or Stanford are no better than those at Georgia Tech or University of California Davis, and that even the graduate research work carried out at the latter institutions can be of the same level.
What is different is mainly the exposure to the broader community that a graduate student receives. One need only look at the list of speakers invited to deliver seminars at the different institutions over the course of an academic year, or visiting scientists.
And while it is possible, and common, for someone who has received his/her PhD at a second tier university, to do a postdoc at a first tier one, the benefit is not the same as having been a graduate student at that very same first-tier institution, with that very same prominent PI as a major professor.
A lot of talent can be found at universities that do not enjoy the worldwide reputation of the top five in the US, with peaks of absolute excellence — and it is my opinion that much of that talent remains unnoticed or underrated, mainly due to the lesser known name of the place.
Scientists, namely people who pride themselves of being capable of carrying out objective, unbiased and in-depth comparison, ought not be so heavily influenced by things like stickers, facade, letterhead.